Today, I want to tell you about the Great Fire of Chudleigh which happened in 1807. Chudleigh is a small town in Devon, and, like the Great Fire of London, the blaze began in a bakery. At around noon, a pile of gorse stacked near a baking oven caught light. Normally, it might have been easily controlled, but there had been a long spell of dry weather. Then, a breeze blew up which carried burning flakes from the fire to neighbouring properties. Many of the dwellings had thatched roofs which had become tinder dry in the hot sun and they quickly caught light. The same breeze then carried large pieces of burning thatch and soon, three whole streets were on fire.
The Chudleigh residents had little time to gather their belongings before they had to abandon their homes. The few items they managed to save were taken to the Market House for safe-keeping. As it had been newly rebuilt and had a slate roof, people thought that would be a good place and it filled quickly. Unfortunately, some of the stuff they took in was already on fire, so that burned down as well.
The town did have their own fire engine, but it is not clear whether they had any water after such a long dry spell. In any case, the fire engine caught fire and was no help at all. Then, at around two o’clock a barrel of gunpowder that everyone had forgotten about exploded, giving a fresh impetus to the blaze.
The body of a recently deceased gentleman lay in one of the houses in the centre of the town and someone had thoughtfully carried the coffin out into the street to protect it from the flames. But, unfortunately, people also began to pile some of their own smouldering possessions around it. His bereaved son, whose own house was on fire, was told what had happened and he rushed through narrow, burning streets to rescue his father’s body. He got there just in time to pull off the burning pall that was covering the coffin. With the help of a few friends, he managed to carry it to the churchyard. In the midst of the chaos, a hurried funeral was conducted. The vicar and two mourners were the only attendees as everyone else was pretty busy.
Also, like the Great Fire of London, the fire was only halted when the houses in its path were pulled down. In only four hours, almost two thirds of the town had been lost. Amazingly though, no one was killed. But many people had lost everything and were left homeless. Help flooded in from neighbouring communities in the form of money and clothes. They also sent bibles and prayer books. The money was used to compensate people for their losses, but it was felt that some people had made larger claims than they were entitled to. The largest claim, of one thousand two hundred and seven pounds, twelve shillings and fourpence, went to a Mr Richard Rose, an innkeeper, who used the money to rebuild his coaching inn, pictured above, which had been destroyed by the fire.
In the course of my research today, I discovered that in 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the fire, the Chudleigh Historical Society planned to commemorate the event by setting fire to a seventy foot long scale replica of the village, complete with exploding barrel of gunpowder. I’ve no idea if it came to anything, but if it did, I really hope everyone was okay.